For the majority of its opening act, Non-Stop threatens to be an intelligent action thriller. We meet Neeson’s bedraggled sky cop Bill Marks getting liquored up in his car before making his way through the airport, encountering a number of his fellow passengers along the way. He has brief interactions with a few, pauses to study others, and ahead of a flight which will paint each and every person on the plane as a potential suspect or a potential victim, director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown) seems to be setting up an interesting examination of post-9/11 airport profiling.
When the plot takes flight, though, that impression fades slightly, but instead Serra presents the makings of a tense, efficient thriller in the vein of Phone Booth crossed with Air Force One. As Marks begins to receive instructions, threats and demands over a secure network on his phone from someone else on the flight, he (and by extension, the audience) finds himself constantly one step behind the mystery antagonist. Even within the first frantic 20-minute period there are unexpected twists and turns and an unremittingly high level of tension, and the question is whether Serra can keep it up.
In terms of the tension he absolutely can, but he does so by turning the film into a kind of elaborate, high-stakes game of Guess Who? Gone is any hint of cleverness, gone is any attempt to explore its themes below surface level, gone is the pretence that this is anything more than a dumb, fun thriller. Instead the Air Marshal dashes around the plane like a madman attempting to figure out whether the hijacker could be the friendly redhead (Julianne Moore), the angry bald man (Corey Stoll), the sweet Brit (Michelle Dockery), or any of the other recognisable faces aboard the flight - all the while trying to dispel suspicion that he, in fact, is the hijacker. It’s ridiculous really, but it’s also an awful lot of fun.
Marks is the kind of unbelievably incompetent law official who acts first and thinks later. As soon as he uncovers a new clue that potentially incriminates another passenger, he immediately (and often violently) confronts that passenger and barks the reasons for his suspicion right at them. But even as his recklessness rises exponentially, so too does the film’s silliness and it just sort of works.
It would be easy to doubt whether Collet-Serra knows what he’s doing – whether the humour’s intentional, whether he’s purposely made something that’s so bad it’s good – but somehow, despite it all, his slick direction sustains the thrills and ensures the mystery elements remain compelling too. As the film builds towards a bombastic climax, you’re still desperate to find out whodunit, howtheydunit and whytheydunit. The resolution probably won’t make a lick of sense, mind, but that’s all part of Non-Stop’s charm.